Belfast Telegraph

Thursday 18 September 2014

Tiger Woods and the first law of sexual economics

The only surprising thing about the Tiger Woods story is that anyone finds it surprising.

Guess what? People surrounded their entire lives by sycophants and flatterers, who become obscenely wealthy before they've emerged from adolescence, whose subsequent power creates a consequence-free environment, tend to lose their sense of perspective.

They think they can have whatever they want, because generally they can. And given the opportunity, rich and powerful men will often leverage their power for sexual favours. To whom is this news?

For many children, their first full sentence is: “I want that.” It's a primal impulse, more basic than sex: our first instinct is to take what we want. Only through patient teaching and painful socialisation do we eventually accept that we can't always have it. But people who are given whatever they want soon develop a sense of entitlement.

Tiger Woods may not have believed his own hype, but he seems to have believed one of his slogans: Just Do It. Tiger just did it — and it is beginning to look as if the only person in Woods's life who ever said no to him was his wife, Elin. Increasingly American commentators are suggesting that there is a racial element to the media's fascination with the Woods story, arguing that the subtext is that of a previously well-behaved black athlete turning into an unruly sexual predator.

But let's bear Occam's razor in mind and ask whether we need a more elaborate explanation for our fascination than the fact that a carefully constructed facade of perfection has crashed. It is no coincidence that Woods was encouraged — if not forced — to create that facade by his corporate sponsors. This is the logic of celebrity endorsement, that we buy the commodities they flog because we aspire to be more like them. If they aren't aspirational figures, their value plummets. Woods's marriage was part of his brand.

We want to believe that there is something immanent, categorically different about our heroes; we use religious words like icon, god, worship, and aura to describe them because we admire mystique. But we also relish demystification. In all likelihood the only thing extraordinary about Tiger Woods was his golf. That was the source of his power. But there's no correlation between being good at sports and good at marriage. Now, predictably, we've started hearing about ‘sex addiction’.

Our culture's predilection for diagnosing and pathologising behaviour we condemn relates again to questions of accountability. Calling it an addiction begins to absolve Woods of responsibility. It also seems to miss the point.

We should stop being shocked when male athletes — or politicians, or movie stars — are sexually voracious, because sex is one of the trophies of their power. There are only so many mansions and cars a billionaire can buy, only so many ways to exercise your prerogatives.

Illicit sex isn't just a cheap thrill; it's simultaneously testing and demonstrating his power. How much could he get away with?

Doubtless some of the women always planned to cash in eventually, but they will have enjoyed some other frissons — borrowed glory, for instance.

These women all had something else in common: they are recognisably working class. Woods seems to have gone for women with limited access to wealth and power. Now he is paying the price for his indiscretion, it seems — $55m, according to reports, to keep his wife Elin.

Some commentators have written off Elin, as a dumb blonde.

But she is the daughter of a politician and a journalist and it seems that she may be teaching her husband a masterclass in the art of accountability — at last.

Sarah Churchwell is senior lecturer in American literature and culture at the University of East Anglia

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